Thursday, October 11, 2012

Art and Fear

Rod Serling in the Night Gallery
Rod Serling, curator of the Night Gallery

A recent study made an interesting discovery: viewing scary movies before seeing abstract art makes viewers appreciate it more.   Here's the abstract:

Which emotions underlie our positive experiences of art? Although recent evidence from neuroscience suggests that emotions play a critical role in art perception, no research to date has explored the extent to which specific emotional states affect aesthetic experiences or whether general physiological arousal is sufficient. Participants were assigned to one of five conditions—sitting normally, engaging in 15 or 30 jumping jacks, or viewing a happy or scary video—prior to rating abstract works of art. Only the fear condition resulted in significantly more positive judgments about the art. These striking findings provide the first evidence that fear uniquely inspires positively valenced aesthetic judgments. The results are discussed in the context of embodied cognition. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2012 APA, all rights reserved)

Learning this made me think about something I'd been considering for a while: showing episodes pf classic TV shows with art-related plots during my open studios.  Of course, this would be in the background, for the sake of ambiance, just like the music I play in the background.  I've even started making a list of particular episodes of shows I'd like to screen.  It's amazing how many shows--from The Dick Van Dyke Show to 227--have episodes about a character wanting to become an artist or even getting "discovered" by a curator or collector by accident.  There were a few I thought might be too creepy to show at an open studio, but now that I've read this study, maybe I should reconsider.

One scary video that I especially would like to show is an episode of Naked City (one of my favorite police procedurals of all time) called "Portrait of a Painter."  The painter of the title is played by a young William Shatner.  His situation is quite horrific.  He wakes up to find his wife murdered in his studio and can't remember what happened the night before.  It's a tense psychological thriller, and, in the typical Naked City fashion, is the story of a man at the end of his rope, with the aura of film noir and existentialism about it.

In the meantime, I don't even have a TV at the studio so that idea will be put on hold for a while.  But I have put together a special musical playlist just for October that is moody, melancholy, and vaguely macabre.  I wanted something that would reflect the moods evoked by Midnight Intrigue and the Dark Night of the Soul Series.  I plan to feature them in the hallway outside my studio this time.  Nothing extreme, though. No heavy metal, no angry, thrashing guitars.  But lots of strings.  And Tori Amos and Elysian Fields.  It's more Tim Burton than Wes Craven.  Now that the weather is starting to change and the days have gotten noticeably shorter, I feel like the playlist is ideal for an October evening.  I like making playlists.  It gives me an excuse to buy new music, a luxury I very rarely indulge in these days because of all my other expenses. 

But this eclectic playlist is a mixture of music from many different artists, some famous, others more obscure.  I've got "Moondance" by Van Morrison, "I Put a Spell on You" by Natacha Atlas, and "Fall" by the multi-talented Cree Summer, who played my favorite character, Freddie Brooks, on A Different World.  There are few songs with the color black in their titles: "Black Crow" and "Black Capricorn Day" by Jamiroquai, "Black Acres" by Elysian Fields, and a string quartet version of The Rolling Stones' "Paint it Black" by The Vitamin String Quartet.  I have to admit I am very fond of Vitamin String Quartet.  I think they do their best work with rock and hip-hop.  I already have their cover of Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" on my ever-expanding "Music for my Art Shows" playlist and enjoy seeing the reactions of people who think they are listening to classical music and then suddenly realize it's not. I have several more of their covers on my Halloween playlist, including their take on "Zombie" by The Cranberries.  To amuse myself, I added a song from Wicked, (one of my favorite musicals) and "I Want to Be Evil" by Eartha Kitt, which is even more fun than her "Santa Baby."  Another fun song in the mix is Michael Jackson's "Threatened," a sort of spiritual successor to "Thriller" in which lines taken from the opening and closing monologues of The Twilight Zone have been edited together so that Rod Serling is its featured "rapper."  Interspersed throughout are a lot of instrumentals.  I like to pair instrumentals with abstract art.  Besides the Vitamin String Quartet covers I already mentioned, I have a beautiful piano instrumental bonus track from the end of No Doubt's Return of Saturn album, a hypnotic song called "Ink" by Syrian group Hewar (sadly out of print now), and some incredible melodies by Egyptian jazz quartet Masar. The entire playlist is a little over three hours long, so each song will play only once.  And after the years I spent working in retail and having to spend every day listening to the same songs repeatedly, that's the way I like it.  And I forgot to mention that the whole thing begins with "Superstition" by Stevie Wonder as a reminder not to take the songs that follow literally or seriously.

Art and Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland

Coincidentally, Art and Fear is also the title of an outstanding book for artists.  If you are in need of some motivation and don't have time to read The Artist's Way series (which, by the way, I also recommend), it's perfect for you.  It addresses issues like perfectionism, creative blocks, and motivation.  Here are some of my favorite quotes from it:

  • In large measure becoming an artist consists of learning to accept yourself, which makes your work personal, and in following your own voice, which makes your work distinctive.

  • If ninety-eight percent of our medical students were no longer practicing medicine five years after graduation, there would be a Senate investigation, yet that proportion of art majors are routinely consigned to an early professional death.

  • What separates artists from ex-artists is that those who challenge their fears, continue; those who don't, quit.

  • Tolerance for uncertainty is the prerequisite to succeeding.

  • The risk is fearsome: in making your real work you hand the audience the power to deny the understanding you seek; you hand them the power to say, "you're not like us; you're weird; you're crazy."

If The Artist's Way is like a super deluxe 64 ounce mocha with flavored syrup, whipped cream, and a dusting of cinnamon and nutmeg on top, Art and Fear is like a shot of espresso.  Both are like caffeine to energize your artistic career, and which you choose is really a matter of taste.

So as I close, the idea of the role fear plays in artists and in their audiences is a very interesting subject.  Don't be afraid to share your comments.  (Unless you're a spammer.)

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